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Going for a song - Part III

By Terry Joseph
November 14, 2003

Last night's business included attending the launch of Calypso @ Dirty Jim's, a CD collection of 1950s hits, commentary on the period's social condition, set to simple but attractive melodies and delivered with exemplary diction by some of the art's living legends.

As you may have deduced, last night's business was also pleasure. Nostalgia, albeit recorded just three months ago today, was one of several emotive elements comprising the CD's overall appeal. There was sweetness too, subtle sensuality in the slow groove and risque lyrics, although not of the variety now common.

You will find humour and history, even philosophy in the songs but the outstanding component was an absence of malice. Here was an entire calypso album that didn't offend gender, tribe, class, colour, creed or political affiliation; unsuitable only for aerobics. No wonder some of its songs sold millions, albeit through cover versions.

Calypso tents of the day must have been fun, unlike contemporary comparisons whose managers now agree that through unprovoked attacks on individuals and groups, the sins of a relatively small number of singers have alienated thousands of lovers of the art. Indo-Trinis, they tell me, aren't coming anymore although, given the treatment of women of all races, Indo-Trinis cannot honestly claim monopoly as victims of calypso persecution.

It is probably the greatest irony in calypso history, one compounded by today's composers who must be thinking that Indo-Trini calypso input is limited to the likes of Drupatee Ramgoonai, Rikki Jai and Hindu Prince, or technical assistance from Balroop's and Rent-a-Amp; the narrow view fuelling tribal stereotyping.

Fact is, Indo-Trinis have been deeply involved with calypso and from well before WWII, participating both on stage and as promoters of the art.

Among the best-remembered names in calypso in the 1930s was Moonsie Daley, reportedly a bard of great wit and voice, who enjoyed tremendous respect of his peers.

The first tour ever organised as an exclusive Trini-calypso showcase took place in 1933 when, with no hope of tangible returns, Rahamut and Company completely funded boat-trip, accommodation and wages for several top flight singers (including The Roaring Lion) to perform in Barbados, Grenada and St Vincent.

Lion was himself brought up by an Indo-Trini, Najeera Mohammed who, by his own admission, was the major influence in choosing the calypso career that made him and the art globally famous. Among the names of calypso colleagues from the 1950s most easily remembered Wednesday by Lord Superior as we spoke about Dirty Jim Swizzle Club were Albany and Indian Prince.

Echoing Lion's praise of Rahamut and Company, Superior testified: "Indian people were stout kaiso supporters. They came to the tents in large groups and spent freely. At the time, if a calypsonian wanted to record his work, the first place he would go for financial assistance would be to the Indian community, because he was more likely to get significant help there."

The ascendancy of Calypso King of the World, The Mighty Sparrow, acknowledges the role of Cyril Shaw. And only when Lal Parsotan retired after decades of calypso-show promotions, did the National Women's Action Committee (NWAC) assume responsibility for one of his creations, the annual national calypso queen competition.

Soca itself must be grateful for the presence of Indian percussion instruments, having adapted tabla, dholak and jhanj to its rhythm design, creating an indigenous music fusion that had greater potential for achieving national unity than anything said since by politicians or Pollyannas.

It was Moean Mohammed who took aspiring recording engineer Carl "Beaver" Henderson underwing, helping him develop studio craft, one result being Brother Marvin's "Jahaaji Bhai", a beautiful calypso released in 1996 which, astonishingly, was swiftly reduced to ludicrous arguments about its composer's tribal allegiances.

And then, of course, there is Moonasar Chanka from Penal, whose extensive list of calypso productions stretches back some 20 years and includes albums by Gypsy, Tony Ricardo, Johnny King's "Wet Mih Down", Scrunter's "Sing in She Party", Kitchener's "Bees Melody", King Fighter's remake of "Come Leh We Go, Sukie" and compilations featuring Black Stalin, Organiser, Squibby, Preacher, Blakie, Funny, Power and Trinidad Rio and most recently, Sparrow live at Screamer's Pub and who, it is said, often used gains from his super successful Chutney Party Mix series (volumes one to nine) to fund losing calypso propositions.

Add Mohan Jaikaran, who set up JMC Records, produced several calypsonians and at least one release for Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, created a (now dormant) calypso awards programme and sponsors Triveni, among whose lead singers are Carlene Wells and Double D, a band whose calypso repertoire matches its catalogue of Indian songs.

This is by no means the exhaustive list but an attempt to bring balance to the stereotype about Indo-Trinis and calypso. Detailed in these examples, however, is evidence that not so long ago, relations between the races were going well at least in the calypso context.

And then, all hell broke loose.

—To be continued

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